From restaurateur to film commissioner with
international connections, Joan Miller makes it happen
There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction when the two hit men call in The Cleaner, aka Harvey Keitel, to tidy up a botched job.
A loose trigger finger results in the unfortunate and messy demise of some schmuck in the back of a car and now it’s The Cleaner’s job to make it “all go away.”
It’s unlikely that Island North Film (INfilm) Commissioner Joan Miller has ever bumped off a mouthy production assistant, but when things go wrong in movieland, she’s the first to be called.
“We’re fixers. That’s what film commissioners are,” she explains. “If they call in the middle of the night because they want something in the morning, you do it. That’s just the way this industry works.”
Joan “The Fixer” Miller has an ominous ring until she flashes that big smile and bats those blue eyes. It’s a look that says, “Trust me and relax, I know what I’m doing. I’ll make it happen.”
Miller is a certified film commissioner, just one of 24 worldwide. It’s her expertise, contacts and diplomacy that has helped bring many projects, worth tens of millions of dollars, to Campbell River and Vancouver Island since the mid-1990s. “I’m a certified fixer now! Some might say certifiable,” she says with a laugh. “It’s come a long way from, ‘Would you like some coffee or tea?’”
And that’s how it all began, two decades ago, at the popular local restaurant, Pier Street Cafe, that she owned and operated downtown.
Miller recalls serving a man who started to ask a lot of questions about the area and who’s available to do what. Turns out the guy was a locations scout for the soon-to-be-made Hollywood flick, The Scarlet Letter, and it turned out that Miller was exceptionally qualified to meet their needs. “Hey, I’m a local girl. I know a lot people and places,” she says with a shrug.
When the film crew arrived in Campbell River to shoot scenes in the forest and along the Oyster River, movie fans scoured the city for sightings of star Demi Moore.
It was an exciting time and it also dropped millions of dollars in the region as the filmmakers hired local people, bought supplies and services, and ordered enough daily catering to feed a company of soldiers.
Despite the fact the movie was a commercial flop, it opened the door for Miller’s second career as a film commissioner, a process she calls, “Trial by fire.”
“In the movie biz, you quickly learn that things go really, really good, or they go really, really bad,” she says.
After The Scarlet Letter, Miller took courses offered through the province which wanted to expand B.C.’s film base from just Vancouver. There she learned the “dos and don’ts” of what filmmakers expect which can boil down to this simplistic philosophy: Do whatever you can at any time of day for the movie makers and never EVER divulge any information about the project that hasn’t been first approved by at least 50 people.”
“You make one mistake, just one mistake, and you lose their trust forever,” Miller explains. “This is a global industry if you get on ‘that list’ that’s it!”
In the minds of movie people, Miller is on the “Good Girl” list and that led to movie #2 which was far bigger than the first project. “Eaters of the Crew,” laughs Miller, recalling the joke name for the working title.
In the summer of 1997, a large production film crew arrived in Campbell River to make the Michael Crighton book, Eaters of the Dead, into a major motion picture starring Antonio Banderas.
It was hush-hush for months, but with hundreds of local people involved as extras, suppliers and craftsmen, the word got out that Disney had arrived and was spending millions to make a potential blockbuster. The film was later renamed The 13th Warrior and also failed to do well at the box office, but it was another local economic bonanza.
“They spent about $37 million in our area alone,” says Miller. It was also organized chaos as Miller, the newbie Fixer, worked out of her restaurant to find locations, equipment and craftspeople to meet the never-ending list of urgent demands. The filmmakers also holed up in the cafe because there was the space and, more importantly, food.
“I remember being in there, trying to find bulldozers and here was John McTiernan, one of the world’s biggest directors, helping serve customers because I was on the phone. He thought it was fun,” Miller says.
It wasn’t long after that when Miller closed the restaurant and opened the North Island Film Commission in the same space. In the following years she took more courses, met with other commissioners, travelled to conferences, held local workshops to help train people who wanted to enter the movie business, and compiled a comprehensive portfolio of potential film locations for the North Island.
“We have fabulous locations in our region!” she states. Soon, Miller’s reputation as a great Fixer – make that film commissioner – spread. In the coming years, crews arrived from around the world to film commercials, more movies and scenes, and an array of nature and wildlife documentaries. “Right now we’re coming into documentary season,” she points out.
Her reputation also grew among the 330 film commissions scattered around the globe. For the last 10 years, Miller was on the Association of Film Commissioners International and stepped down as 1st vice-president this past January after helping organize the conference in South Korea.
It was on the board where Miller made many important contacts with people like Michael Uslan, an executive producer of the Batman franchise, who was recently in Campbell River – on Miller’s invitation – for the 25th anniversary screening of Batman.
Her resignation from the board doesn’t mean Miller is stepping back from her duties. Rather, she sees it as opportunity to utilize her relationships with producers, directors, independent filmmakers and creative people to bring their expertise to the Island. Specifically, Miller is devoting more time and energy to the Campbell River Creative Industries Council, “whose aim is to incubate and accelerate the growth of a cluster of creative industries in our community.”
And they’re doing this by bringing businesses and creative people together to find innovate ways to make video, games, movies and more. This proactive approach, she believes, will help attract even more projects to the area.
“We had to go out and build an international market because that’s the way the world works,” she says. “Otherwise you’re playing the waiting game, waiting for productions to come to you and that doesn’t work well.”
At home in Campbell River, Miller relaxes in her living room, surrounded by local paintings of fishing boats and First Nations art, but it’s the back garden where she can work in the earth, relax and enjoy the plants and flowers. But it’s never too long before someone calls asking The Fixer to get something done… right now!
“My Rolodex is wild! In the middle of the night who are you going to call? You just get things done,” she says.
Other movies supported by INfilm:
• Insomnia (2002), Port Alberni, starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank.
• Trapped (2002), Comox Valley, starring Charlize Theron, Courtney Love and Kevin Bacon.
• Final Destination (2003), Campbell River, starring Ali Larter.
• National Lampoon’s Going The Distance (2004), Saratoga Beach.
• Are We There Yet (2005), Comox Valley, staring Ice Cube.
• Godzilla (2014), Nanaimo.
Learn more at www.infilm.ca